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UC researchers study how children with autism sleep

UC researchers study how children with autism sleep

Two University of Canterbury (UC) researchers are seeking participants for a study into the effectiveness of treatments for sleep disturbance in children with autism.

UC School of Health Sciences senior lecturer Dr Laurie McLay and Associate Professor Karyn France are keen to provide assistance to families of children with autism as part of the research process and say help is available for children across the range of communicative ability.

“Sleep is one of the major concerns reported by parents of children with autism. Our study offers practical support to families, who select an individualised treatment to use with their child to improve sleep,” Dr McLay says.

Participants can be based anywhere in New Zealand and can include children across the autism spectrum who have sleep disturbance and are not currently receiving treatment for it. Children should be aged three years or older, and have a formal autism diagnosis.

Dr McLay says there are very high rates of sleep disturbance in children with autism and problems can develop due to physiological components, as well as environmental influences.

“As many as 40 to 80 per cent of children with autism have some type of sleep difficulty. This can include delayed sleep onset, frequent and prolonged night awakenings – or a combination of both,” she says.

“Sleep disturbance can have an impact on a child’s learning, behaviour and socialisation, as well as affecting the overall well-being of parents, who can become stressed and also affected by lack of sleep.”

The study is supported by a research grant from the IHC Foundation and the UC researchers have been working in partnership with IDEA Services and various autism support networks to recruit participants. The research team has already worked with a number of families to successfully reduce sleep problems.

“We’ve had a good response in Auckland and Christchurch, but there is room for more children in the study right around the country,” Dr McLay says.

Information about children’s sleep behaviour will be gathered using sleep diary and video recordings, after which the research team will support parents to implement the chosen treatment option.

“It’s all about parental choice. Treatment options are individualised based upon the needs of each child. The family then chooses the approach they want to try and we will work with them until they are satisfied that the sleep problem is alleviated, or until they decide they want to withdraw from the study.”

The study focuses on behaviour therapies and other treatments such as the use of white noise and massage therapy. Dr McLay says this study is about investigating the effectiveness of approaches that may minimise parent and child distress.

The researchers are based in the Pukemanu – Dovedale Centre, a teaching clinic run by the University of Canterbury’s Child and Family Psychology programme. Families outside Christchurch are catered for by visits to hometowns and local research assistants.

Dr McLay teaches courses in specialist teaching at UC, where she completed her PhD working with children with autism. Associate Professor France is a qualified clinical psychologist who has spent many years working in the area of child and family psychology, with a strong research focus within the Canterbury Sleep Programme on child sleep behaviour.


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